The glorious past — and who knows, maybe even the glorious future — of the Toronto Raptors will be in sharp focus on Saturday night on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The Raptors make their first visit to Milwaukee since they shoved the 2018 Eastern Conference No. 1 seed and the reigning league MVP out of the way on their way to the Finals and, in short order, a championship.
So many things had to go right for that to happen, but perhaps the most remarkable was Toronto recovering from an 0-2 hole and surviving double-overtime in Game 3 at Scotiabank Arena on their way to winning four straight to eliminate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
The mind boggles on how small a pin history can turn.
“It was a crazy game,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said as the Raptors were getting ready to leave for Milwaukee on Friday.
Siakam was in the middle of all of it. He missed a pair of free throws with seven seconds left in regulation that would have put the Raptors up four, icing the game before the extra time. He missed a lay-up in the first overtime that could have won it right then and there, and then made a pair of free throws in the second overtime that gave the Raptors some much needed breathing room with 16 seconds left.
“I remember Kawhi blamed me for having to play an extra hour of basketball,” said Siakam who finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and a vital, momentum-changing blocked shot in overtime against the Bucks’ Brook Lopez. “It was definitely a tough game, to missing the free throws, to overtime, but not giving up. You know, after I missed those free throws, I could have just went back and not wanted to play anymore, just feeling I’d lost. But my teammates around me kept me motivated. It was definitely a great win now that you’ve made me think about it. It was amazing how we were able to get that win.”
Even having been eliminated by Toronto last year the Bucks entered this season as one of the top-tier championship favourites – part of the territory when Antetokounmpo is on your roster.
But the Raptors don’t ‘Fear the Deer’ as the slogan goes, even if they’re without Leonard, now with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The win in Game 3 not only kept the Raptors in the series, but within the game they established an approach to containing Antetokounmpo, the full-court freight train that was unstoppable throughout the regular season.
It will be interesting to see how well their strategy against the so-called Greek Freak travels.
Siakam and Leonard combined to limit him to four points on the 60 possessions they guarded him, as Antetokounmpo finished with 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting in Game 3.
For the final four games of the series, Antetokounmpo averaged 20.5 points but shot just 43.5 per cent from the floor while playing 39 minutes a game – a steep drop from his regular-season production where he averaged 27.7 points a game in just 32.3 minutes while shooting 58 per cent.
The Raptors fed Antetokounmpo a steady diet of elite defenders at the point of attack and otherwise packed the paint behind while dareing the likes of Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe to beat them on the perimeter and it worked.
“I just think that we got to a stage defensively — you’ve heard me say this a million times, even when we were down 2-0, I felt really good about the series,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That sounds silly but, again, I thought we really out-played them in Game 1, like severely out-played them so I just hoped that we could put four of them together like Game 1 and we were fortunate enough to do it.
“I just think it was all about a better defensive scheme and effort that we got figured out.”
It should make for a fascinating early-season meeting as Toronto tries to push their record to 5-1 and the Bucks hope to improve to 3-2.
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It is a test for Siakam as the primary option against Milwaukee after playing the Robin to Leonard’s Batman last year. It is also an opportunity for the rapidly emerging OG Anunoby to take on the defensive load that Leonard did a year ago alongside Siakam, who Nurse said won’t be getting any special treatment on defence even as his offensive responsibilities have ballooned in the early-going this season.
“[Siakam] is gonna be matched up against Giannis tomorrow night,” said Nurse. “We’re going to give it to him. He’s way too young to be doing too much of that [being rested on defence], in my opinion. I think he can play defence and he can score 25 to 30 a night.”
Anunoby will get next crack as the first line of defence against Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 hybrid point guard-centre.
“He’s playing very well” said Nurse of Anunoby, who combines the dimensions of an NFL defensive end with the mobility of a free safety and who leads the Raptors in both steals (eight) and blocked shots (nine). “He’s a defender. He’s making plays on defence. Hopefully if he keeps playing this way, I would expect some up-and-down moments from him. He’s been pretty good in four out of five I would say. He’s coming on the other end, too. He’s more than just a defender. He’s a pretty good basketball player.”
Which can only be intriguing as the prospect of the Raptors’ future comes into view.
Siakam looks poised join Antetokounmpo in the rare air reserved for All-NBA talents – when you’re averaging 28 points, nine rebounds and nearly four assists a game with True Shooting percentage of .626 that’s what happens – and Anunoby is showing early signs of being an all-NBA defender.
Antetokounmpo is already being talked about as the most coveted free agent in the summer of 2021 and the Raptors will have all the cap space they would need to take a run at him.
Would joining Siakam and Anunoby as part of the next Eastern Conference dynasty-in-the-making seem plausible to the NBA’s reigning MVP? Possible?
It’s too early to tell, even if the NBA speculation machine is already revving up.
But no one knows better than Antetokounmpo what the Raptors have been capable of in the past, which can only bode well for the future.
Just in case, Saturday night is another chance to be reminded.